Other social science

The Origins of Conspiracy Theories

Aug 29 '11

bq. What drives conspiracy theorizing in the United States?…For purchase on this problem, we attempt the first systematic data collection of conspiracy theories at the mass and elite levels by examining published letters to the editor of the New York Times from 1897 to 2010 and a validating sample from the Chicago Tribune. We argue that perceived power asymmetries, indicated by international and domestic conflicts, influence when and why conspiracy theories resonate in the U.S. On this reasoning, conspiracy theories conform to a strategic logic that helps vulnerable groups manage threats. Further, we find that both sides of the domestic partisan divide partake in conspiracy theorizing equally, though in an alternating pattern, and foreign conspiracy theories crowd out domestic conspiracy theories during heightened foreign threat.

From a new paper by political scientists Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, and Bethany Torres, an undergraduate at SUNY-Buffalo.  A conspiracy theory is defined using four criteria:

bq. …the letter had to include four elements: (1) a group who (2) acted in secret to (3) alter institutions, usurp power, hide truth, or gain utility at (4) the expense of the common good.

Uscinski and colleagues find that during the Cold War and when the U.S. was threatened by another “great power,” conspiracy theories emphasized foreign actors.

They also find that conspiracy theories about domestic actors depend on the party of the president.  When the president was a Democratic or the congressional majority was Democratic, conspiracy theories emphasized left-wing actors and communists.  When Republicans controlled the presidency or Congress, conspiracy theories emphasized right-wing or business interests.

They conclude:

bq. Paradoxically then, democracy is both a source and a remedy for conspiracy theories. Groups across the political spectrum have leveled conspiracy accusations at others and been subject to the same accusations themselves because the regular vicissitudes of power in a democracy mean that sooner or later everyone plays the loser.

[Photo credit: Robert Simmons]